A Scottish play fit for a king: How William Shakespeare secured his future at a time of treason, terror and retribution

England’s greatest playwright had made a comfortable living during the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign by producing crowd pleasing blockbusters, and a series of historical plays that were basically propaganda for the Tudor regime.

When the old queen finally died and the Tudor dynasty came to an end in 1603, William Shakespeare, like everyone else dependent on royal patronage, faced an uncertain future. In a succession meticulously managed by Elizabeth’s closest advisor, Robert Cecil, the new monarch was to be a foreigner, James VI of Scotland.

One thing just everybody in London knew about James was that he considered himself to be an intellectual and an expert on the occult, and in particular witchcraft. In 1597, James had published Daemonologie, a philosophical treatise on demonology, which endorsed the practice of witch hunting. Moreover, James had personally presided over several witch trials in Scotland, including that of Agnis Tompson who confessed to using witchcraft (sacrificing a cat and throwing it into the sea) to bring about a tempest that would wreck the king’s flotilla as it returned to shore.

It is clearly no coincidence that Shakespeare chose to open his new play about a Scottish king with thunder and lightning, and the entrance of three witches. In fact, several of the rituals performed by the witches in Macbeth are lifted straight from Daemonologie as well as the records of the witch trials that were published along with it – a sure way to pique royal interest.

The second thing everyone knew about King James, as hinted at by the trial of Agnis Tompson, was that he was paranoid about assassination attempts, and with good reason. So, Shakespeare made sure to tick the regicide box early on in the play, and go on to demonstrate that no good could ever come of such evil deeds.

The king’s paranoia went into overdrive less than two years into his English reign when a group of Catholic fanatics attempted to kill not only James but his heir and the entire government by blowing up the House of Lords at the state opening of parliament on November 5, 1605.

The conspiracy was foiled thanks once again to the political cunning of Robert Cecil. Some have suggested that the whole Gunpowder Plot was a false flag operation devised by Cecil to launch a thorough purge of the troublesome English Catholic elite. While this is rather farfetched, it is without doubt that Cecil knew about the plot well before November 5 and used that information to lure the conspirators out into the open.

The terrorist outrage of November 5 was widely condemned but the initial calls for retribution were limited to the immediate conspirators who either died in action or where executed (hanged, drawn and quartered) after capture. That soon changed. Torture was used to obtain confessions and reveal the wider network of Catholic supporters and sympathisers, and hunt down anyone who had the merest knowledge of the plot. Very soon, just about every Catholic in England was suspected.

The best-known victim of this purge was the Jesuit elder Henry Garnet who knew about the plot a few months in advance but did not alert the authorities because, he claimed, the information was obtained under the seal of the confessional. Garnet cited the Catholic doctrine of equivocation in his defence, namely that the concealment of the truth is excusable if it serves a higher purpose.

Much was made of these verbal gymnastics by the prosecution at Garnet’s treason trial. And sure enough, in Act Two of Macbeth, there is a scene in which the grumpy old porter investigates a loud knocking at the castle gate:

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

No one could have missed the reference.

As the purge expanded, Shakespeare had real reason to fear for his own family’s safety. Many of the plotters came from the Stratford-upon-Avon region and the Shakespeare family would probably have been acquainted with some of them. Most worrying of all, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna was cited as a recusant after failing to attend Holy Communion at Easter in 1606 – around the time of Garnet’s execution. She got away with a warning after apologising for her lapse but the episode must have spurred her father on to make his new play as politically correct as possible.

In a final act of flattery, Shakespeare has the three witches prophesise that it is the descendants of Banquo, and not the children of the traitor Macbeth, who will be the future kings of Scotland. Contemporary legend had it that James was directly descended from the historical Banquo, and that probably sealed the deal as far as royal patronage was concerned.

It goes without saying that there is so much more to Macbeth (and the historical plays) than mere propaganda. The point here is that in addition to being a brilliant playwright whose portrayals of love, ambition, jealousy and the ridiculousness of the human condition still resonate today, William Shakespeare was also a shrewd political operator. He was not on the same level as Robert Cecil (and that is a good thing) but he knew enough to advance his burgeoning theatrical business and keep his family safe, all the while maintaining his artistic integrity.

For more of my thoughts on Shakespeare and his works, please see PORTIA’S QUALITY OF MERCY IS STRAINED and ROMEO’S PRIVILEGE.

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